Uncle Winston loved to paint – but he had no natural talent
Winston Churchill may have been an enthusiastic amateur artist who found painting relaxing at times of stress – but he was a poor painter with no sense of beauty.
That damning verdict comes not from a snobbish art critic, or even an embittered political rival, but from one of those closest to him.
Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon – Churchill’s niece and the widow of former prime minister Anthony Eden – says: “My uncle didn’t have a good eye. He did painting; they were quite nice. But he wasn’t an aesthete.”
The walls of Chartwell, Churchill’s former home in Kent, are lined with some of the 544 sketches, portraits and landscapes he produced, and only last November the final painting he completed before his death, The Goldfish Pool At Chartwell, smashed estimates when it sold at auction for £357,000. Churchill’s image as the lion-hearted prime minister has recently been reinforced by Gary Oldman’s Oscarnominated portrayal of him as inspirational orator, rallying Britain and routing would-be appeasers in Darkest Hour.
But Lady Avon goes out of her way to remind us that the wartime leader was in fact “a failure” for much of his political life, out of office and at odds with his colleagues. “I always knew him as a great man who hadn’t been appreciated. Most of my [early] life he was a failure. He was out of a job, out of work and not right in anything he believed in,” she says in an interview in the latest edition of
Spear’s, the wealth management and luxury lifestyle magazine, published today.
“He was in exile, so to speak. Going to Chartwell before the war was going to a place in exile – a place where people were not doing anything. It was all rather frustrating and sad.”
Lady Avon, 97, was certainly in a position to observe her uncle’s political and personal fortunes from close quarters.
She is the daughter of Jack Churchill, Winston’s younger brother, and Lady Gwendoline Bertie, daughter of the Earl of Abingdon.
Lady Avon, who lived through the 1956 Suez crisis at her husband’s side in Downing Street – when she famously remarked “the Suez Canal flowing through my drawing room” – is also critical in her assessment of Churchill as a man, suggesting he was prone to being self-centred and ignoring those around him.
She says of visits to Chartwell, the home that Churchill shared with his wife Clementine from 1922 until his death in January 1965, and which is now open to the public and run by the National Trust: “It was just him. One went and there was him and nothing else. They had the lunch or whatever it was, and he would talk and one would listen; that was the important part.
“He was not interested in what anybody else had to say. If somebody famous was at lunch he would listen to them, but on the whole he didn’t pay any attention to anybody.”
Lady Avon, a friend of Cecil Beaton, the society photographer and designer, and Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, also challenges another of the commonly-held beliefs about Churchill: that he consumed a copious amount of alcohol. “Not more than most men,” she says.
But time spent around her uncle was endlessly fascinating. “It was interesting always because Winston was so interesting,” she says. “One always wanted to know what he was thinking and doing.”
For all his setbacks, Churchill did, of course, achieve greatness eventually, she says. “By the end of his life he was very great, wasn’t he? It would be very difficult not to realise that he would be remembered. He was exceptional, certainly.”
Lady Avon adds: “I think I realised he was very great in spite of the fact that everyone kept telling one that he was.”
But was he the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century? His niece has a succinct answer.
“Who was greater?”
‘He was not interested in what anybody else had to say… He didn’t pay any attention to anybody’
Churchill as an artist and, left, his final work, The Goldfish Pool At Chartwell. Lady Avon, below, said her uncle’s work was nice – but he was not an aesthete